The Yiddish musical The Golden Bride first premiered on February 9, 1923, a time when new laws were being implemented that would strongly limit the number of Eastern European Jews permitted to immigrate to America. It is essential to keep this filter in place when experiencing the latest remounting by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. While the lively music by Joseph Rumshinsky and fine operatic singing have weathered the test of time, much of the theme and relationships are bordering on the offensive when viewed through a modern middle-aged lens. (I can’t begin to imagine what younger audience members would make of it.)
The piece opens like a Russian flavored Gilbert and Sullivan with a brightly colored set behind a cohesive chorus. The orchestra led by Zalmen Mlotek can be glimpsed through a scrim center stage. Louis Gilrod’s cute lyrics are in Yiddish with English and Russian titles projected on the top of the proscenium. Trilling notes are hit and words well articulated by an impressive sprawling cast.
The basic set-up is presented within the first few songs. Two young women have unexpectedly come into large sums of money and will therefore be able to make great marriages. This storyline may have worked perfectly as a tool for helping those newly arrived from the Russian Empire to a disorienting home in the USA. But to the ears of the uninitiated, this plot will seem worn and unwelcome leading to a tough struggle through the next two hours. Other bits like their fumbling with the English language and the muddled-ness of a hard-of-hearing character are even more potentially wounding in 2016.
There are moments of levity that survive the journey through the years much better. The core of the comic space is held by high-spirited Adam B. Shapiro in the clownish role of Kalmen. The relationship between the charming Pinkhes (Bruce Rebold) and his doting wife Toybe (Lisa Fishman) sparkles in both their Russian inn and as they attempt to adapt to their perception of life as upper class Americans. Glenn Seven Allen and Rachel Zatoff give broad but amusing performances as would-be actors Jerome and Khanele. Tougher jobs are given to the central young lovers Misha (Cameron Johnson) and Goldele (Rachel Policar). But despite all the unsavory talk of money and position, there is a sweetness to their bond that shines through.
To make this production happen, it truly took a village. The program lists over 200 “supporting producers” who participated in an online fundraising campaign specifically to revive The Golden Bride. This tells me that there is a thirst for high caliber historically insightful entertainment. Whether or not this includes you will depend largely on your ability to alter your perspective. You can test your cultural flexibility through August 28 by purchasing tickets at http://www.nytf.org.